A New Kind of Monster

By Timothy Appleby

I still don’t understand the pictures.

The commonest explanation is that they were a kind of trophy rather than a means to relive the experience later, and I guess that makes some sense. But the notion of a trophy is that it is something to take pride in, even if only a solitary pride. As the photographic evidence from Somalia and Iraq has shown, what our military takes pride in can be appalling, but is there any clearer evidence of our inability to see ourselves as we really are than wanting to save such grotesque images as those Russell Williams took of himself, chronicling his rapid descent into cross-dressed depravity?

He doesn’t even look like he’s enjoying himself. Though the photos made public spare us the erections and ejaculations, one doesn’t see the trace of a smile on his face. Just the same, gimlet-eyed mask that stares out from the dustjacket of A New Kind of Monster (a picture that at least has the air base commander dressed in a more professional uniform).

A closet case if there ever was one, so repressed that his escalation from panty bandit to murderer would take place at lightning speed when the dam finally broke, Williams satisfied his fetishistic urges with a grim and methodical attention to detail reflected in his obsessive-compulsive crime diary. Even the photos received punctilious annotation:

Note: The time on these shots is one hour later than actual. “Fall back” was the past weekend and I hadn’t yet reset the camera. Pics in Untitled Folder 2 have the correct time . . .

The police would make use of such information later. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more helpful perp. Author Timothy Appleby praises the officer who conducted Williams’s initial interrogation too highly. Williams was obviously already starting to crack, and fell apart like a Chinese suit when he was brought in. Indeed he couldn’t shut up. This was of real assistance to the investigation. The police were apparently unable to find what must have been a massive cache of files on his computer until he showed them where to look, and they also had to get him to locate one of his victims’ bodies even after he’d already given them precise directions and a map.

Appleby does a good job filling in most of the background despite running into a “wall of silence” when it came to important sources. Williams himself was not interviewed, and neither of his parents was willing to say anything. At the time of the arrest his brother made a short statement claiming that he had only “minimal contact with him [Williams] in the past two years” (that is, during the time Williams was most active in his criminal career). A former girlfriend also declined any comment beyond rather ambiguously telling a reporter that “whatever my experience was, I don’t think it will be of any use to you.” His wife “uttered not a single word in public.” Even the police were ordered to clam up: after Williams’s conviction, “out of deference to the victims and the families, it had been resolved there would be no more discussion of the Russ Williams case by the police officers or anyone else involved, all of whom were ordered to comply.”

Beyond the well-documented facts of the case, then, there exists a hazy border zone of mystery. Several questions in particular stand out. The first has to do with timing. Why did Williams all of a sudden explode after he turned forty? Before that he seemed to be keeping his latent urges in check (though we can’t know for sure). Was there a trigger? Or did the tension just keep building “like a tightly wound spring” until he had to explode? Another question relates to his marriage. “How was it possible for her [his wife] not to have known, or at least suspected, what her husband had been up to?” Was this a thoroughly postmodern marriage, sexless and childless, between a pair of high-ranking executives who had nothing much in common; simply a synergistic professional convenience allowing for a more comfortable lifestyle?

And finally, just what kind of a psycho was Williams? Not, in Appleby’s judgment, a true psychopath, if we define that term as meaning someone with a total lack of empathy for others. But if we think of the observation, frequently made, that psychopaths make for great CEOs we may want to reconsider. Williams was not only someone who was perfectly capable of functioning at a high level in a demanding work environment while leading a double life, but someone who was successful in both careers thanks to many of the same talents. People wondered after the fact how such a disturbed person had managed to pass as normal for so long. Were there no warning signs? But this assumes that the warning signs would be things that stood out. In many ways he was just what he seemed to be.

Review first published online May 23, 2011.

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